To judge from their endless parade through the Drudge Report, AI and robotics are hot topics in 2019. But in Christian circles, there’s been little serious reflection on these technologies. Indeed, religious groups’ statements on technology often sound curmudgeonly and reactionary.
That may be changing. On April 11, a group of evangelical leaders—including writers, journalists, pastors, and academics—announced the Evangelical Statement of Principles on Artificial Intelligence, sponsored by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, at a press conference in Washington, DC. It’s brief and every Christian interested in the subject should take the time to read it.
I’m friends with many of the organizers and signers—including Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, John Stonestreet of Charles Colson Ministries, and Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion & Democracy. More than that, I am glad to say that the theologians and ethicists who signed it—such as Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ashford, and Dan Heimbach—understand basic economics. That’s a rare and valuable asset for a statement like this one. I expected the document to be well thought-out and was not disappointed.
It is introduced by a preamble and then structured around twelve brief “articles,” each followed by a list of relevant biblical texts. The first article does not address artificial intelligence at all but rather the natural intelligence of human beings. Man, the signers insist, is not a machine, but rather a creature made in the image of the Supreme Intelligence, that is, God.
Man is Not a Machine
For a Christian statement on AI, this approach is exactly right. Far too much of the public conversation about artificial intelligence proceeds as if we can and should suspend our judgment about human beings. But what sense does it make to talk about artificial intelligence unless we grasp what it means to be intelligent in the first place?
Worse, so much of the conversation on AI proceeds as if man is just a machine, as if there is no real distinction between natural and artificial intelligence. But if that were the case, it’s not even clear what we would mean by “artificial” intelligence. In other words, too much of the debate over AI is dictated by prior metaphysical commitments that are rarely examined. This Evangelical Statement is a welcome contrast because it makes the theological issues explicit.
Theology also underlies the second article, “AI as Technology.” AI, like all technology, is ultimately the fruit of man’s creativity:
We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.
At the same time, the Statement makes clear that no technology, AI included, can ever be our source of meaning and salvation:
We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being.
Although the Statement nowhere distinguishes between “weak” and “strong” AI, the signers are clearly (and rightly) skeptical that computers can become conscious moral agents. Article 3, for instance, says that “technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.”
It goes on to explore the relationship of AI to medicine, sexuality, work, war, public policy, and the future. That includes a look at bias in algorithms, as well as data security and privacy. In each case, the approach exhibits nuance and knowledge of the relevant details.
I wondered why the document was released just now, so I asked Mark Tooley why he signed it. “AI is strong and will become a stronger factor in human life for all civilization, so Christians must address it in their social witness,” he told me. “If the church doesn’t offer ethical guidelines, who will? The most pressing issue is maintaining the unique God-ordained value of the human person. Many will inevitably exploit AI to diminish the sacredness of human life and will stress intelligence and capability as defining values versus the divine image on each man and woman. The challenges of AI offer an opportunity for Christians to emphasize what makes persons unique and irreplaceable in creation.”
Amen to that. Let’s hope future Christian statements on AI are as balanced and well-informed as this one.
Also by Jay Richards:
Creative freedom, not robots, is the future of work In an information economy, there will be a place where the human person is at the very center
A short argument against the materialist account of the mind
Amazon pulls out of the New York City deal Jay Richards: “From the beginning, it was clear that Amazon was seeking to build a second headquarters because of the extremely hostile climate of Seattle, where it is headquartered. AOC and other progressives in New York did everything they could to repeat the mistakes of Seattle.”